COUNTLESS THOUSANDS of pin-striped alumni still appear to treasure the Varsity Match as a quintessentially English occasion, which must be the biggest joke to hit Oxbridge rugby circles since a certain Simon Halliday relieved a limping Stuart Barnes of one of his crutches, poked out the nearest window, returned the said implement to its rightful owner and sprinted into the distance, leaving his helpless colleague to face the music.
It is the best part of a decade since the second Tuesday in December had much to do with this particular sceptred isle; indeed, we might as well rename it Commonwealth Day and have done with it. Yesterday's teams featured five Australians apiece as well as five Englishmen, and the cosmopolitan flavour was further enhanced by three New Zealanders, three Irishmen, a couple of Americans and a smattering of French and Japanese. Not much use to Clive Woodward, perhaps, but a definite recruitment opportunity for Kofi Annan.
Under the circumstances, it was no great surprise that a big bloke from Brisbane - one of two big blokes from the same Brisbane family, indeed - should have dominated proceedings to such an extent that it would have been a travesty of justice had he been denied a winner's tankard. Angus Innes, a 27-year-old post-graduate student, made an unholy mess of a vaunted Oxford pack in both tight and loose and can consider himself grossly short- changed by the Light Blues' eventual margin of victory.
Ironically enough, Innes, who played in the Cambridge second row alongside his slightly smaller and marginally less effective brother Hamish, would have been even more productive had he completed an obvious scoring opportunity at the end of the first quarter. Much to his embarrassment, he was pulled down short of the line by Nathan Ashley, a mere centre, albeit an Australian one. The five points would very definitely have been registered had the Wallaby Under-21 cap used the reinforcements lining up outside him, but lock forwards have never been great students of the overlap theory of rugby.
Still, he did more than enough in every other phase of the game to earn Cambridge a decisive advantage in the one operational area that had seriously concerned their coach, Tony Rodgers. "We knew Oxford would give it the Plan A treatment - drive it through the forwards and use their scrum-half as their pivotal figure," said Rodgers, who had the pleasure of seeing his son, Stefan, claim Cambridge's second try five minutes into the second half. "But our own pack is an under-rated unit and we ended up playing all the rugby."
Much of that rugby came from Mark Denney, the former Bristol and Wasps centre. By far the most physical and threatening threequarter on view, he emulated his try-scoring exploits in last year's Varsity jamboree by ripping around the short side of a solid Cambridge scrum inside the Oxford 22 and outpacing Shaun Barry and Richard Woodfine en route to the left corner. It brought the Light Blues level at 5-5 and they would not be headed again.
Rodgers' bustling try, largely created by a sharp thrust and lay-off from the accomplished Denney, was followed by two penalties from Paul Moran, Cambridge's Auckland-born outside-half. At 16-5 down, Oxford had little option to move the ball as far away from the Innes brothers as possible, but although their adventure earned them a late score from Nick Humphries, Moran proved more than able in running down the clock with some cultured long-distance punting.
It might conceivably been different had Oxford's slippery right wing, Nick Booth, capitalised on his own early opportunist try by goaling the eight points presented him on the proverbial plate during a frantic opening 40 minutes. All eight went begging, however, and although Steve Hill, the Oxford coach, reassured everyone afterwards that Booth had struck each of his kicks "quite beautifully", his failure to strike them in the right direction undermined his side's chances of a first Varsity victory in five outings.
"Of course I can see Oxford winning this fixture in the near future," insisted Hill, who is now contemplating the ignominy of a record six defeats on the bounce. "We were close out there; it's not as if we've gone down by 30 points." Fair comment. But having seen his game plan blown clean out of south-west London by a Cambridge pack that was considered seriously suspect, he must now be in equally serious danger of a ritual debagging on the college lawns.
Oxford: Tries Booth, Humphries; Conversion Booth. Cambridge: Tries Denney, Rodgers; Penalties Moran 2.
OXFORD UNIVERSITY: R Woodfine (St Edmund Hall); N Booth (Worcester), N Ashley (University), K Shuman (Templeton), N Humphries (St Anne's); R Governey (St Edmund Hall), S Barry (St Cross); A Collins (Lincoln), P O'Connor (St Edmund Hall), A Reuben (University), A Roberts (New College), M Callender (St Anne's), N Celliers (Keble), T Miuchi (Mansfield), D Kelaher (St Cross, capt).
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: R Morrow (Hughes Hall); A Bidwell (Hughes Hall), M Robinson (Hughes Hall), M Denney (St Edmund's), S Lippiett (Corpus Christi); P Moran (Hughes Hall), G Peacocke (Hughes Hall); M Foulds (Sidney Sussex, capt), S Rodgers (Homerton), C Hart (Hughes Hall), H Innes (Hughes Hall), A Innes (Hughes Hall), O Slack (St Edmund's), H Whitford (Hughes Hall), M Haslett (St Catharine's).
Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).